Prime Minister Stephen Harper, speaking at the Conservative Party convention in Calgary over the weekend, said his government has tried to reform the Senate but was prevented from doing so. He lamented that he was first blocked by other political parties, “and we are now being blocked in the courts.”
Please. There are no courts in Canada blocking Senate reform. In 2011, the Harper government tabled the Senate Reform Act, a bill that would allow provinces to elect nominees to the Senate; the prime minister would then be bound to put the names of the elected to the Governor General, who would continue to appoint senators. As well, senators would be limited to one term of nine years. There are arguments for and against Bill C-7, but what is important to note is that its reforms would be brought about unilaterally by the federal government. The provinces, not surprisingly, have gotten their backs up. Quebec asked its Court of Appeal whether the Constitution’s amending formula allows Ottawa to act without provincial approval. Last month that court said no – this kind of a change to the Senate, said the court, requires the approval of seven provinces holding 50 per cent of the Canadian population.
In March, the Harper government took the precautionary step of asking the Supreme Court of Canada to provide an opinion on the constitutionality of the Senate Reform Act; hearings are scheduled to begin this month. Mr. Harper is right that courts will be involved in the fate of the bill, but a ruling from an appeals court that, in effect, allows for Senate reform as long as the Constitution is respected, and a scheduled hearing before the Supreme Court – one that was requested by the government – do not add up to “being blocked in the courts.”
Not only was Mr. Harper subjecting the truth to enormous tension forces, but by saying in a single breath that Senate reform was blocked by “the other parties” and the courts, he suggested that two very different things – opposition politicians and judges – are somehow aligned in an effort to preserve the status quo. Given, too, that his speech was punctuated with dismissive references to “Ottawa elites” in “ivory towers” who go into federal politics “to join private clubs,” the overall impression was of a Prime Minister lumping a homogeneous entity known as “the courts” in with self-entitled groups opposed to the Conservative Party.
This is wrong and dangerous. Who, other than the courts, can determine which constitutional rules apply to Senate reform? How can we play the game without a referee? The Prime Minister should be among the loudest defenders of our courts’ impartiality. He shouldn’t be calling it into question for partisan purposes.